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Egypt’s Government Makes New Concessions But Protests Persist

February 7, 2011 at 4:58 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered new concessions today after starting talks with opposition leaders.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials took a cautious tack.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Around Cairo, there were some signs of a return to normalcy, with banks, post offices and gas stations open for a second straight day.

President Hosni Mubarak also tried to return to routine with his first Cabinet meeting since the protests began. It concluded with the announcement of a 15 percent raise for government employees. That followed a series of weekend concessions aimed at diffusing popular anger, from creating a committee of well-known public figures to review the country’s constitution, to investigating election fraud and official corruption.

The regime also offered greater freedom of the press and the eventual lifting of long-standing emergency laws. In addition, authorities began releasing some detained protesters, including Google executive Wael Ghonim, who had been held since Jan. 28.

In Washington today, President Obama credited the Egyptian government with moving ahead.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, we just have to negotiate a path. And I think we’re making progress.

KWAME HOLMAN: But, over the weekend, there were sometimes conflicting signals, starting with former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, who met with Mubarak last week and said this on Saturday.

FRANK WISNER, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt: The president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through. I therefore believe that President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical.

KWAME HOLMAN: Wisner’s words drew criticism from Egyptian opposition groups, and U.S. officials insisted he spoke only for himself.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

P.J. CROWLEY, U.S. assistant secretary of state: He did so as a private citizen. And those views are his own. And they — they do not reflect the views of the United States government.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, President Obama again stopped short of calling for Mubarak to resign now in his Sunday interview with FOX News.

BARACK OBAMA: He’s — only he knows what he’s going to do. But here’s what we know, is that Egypt is not going to go back to what it was.

KWAME HOLMAN: There also was word today of the human cost of forcing change. Human Rights Watch reported nearly 300 people have died so far in the two-week-old uprising.

GWEN IFILL: Now to the view from the streets and the people of Cairo, and to our correspondent on the ground, Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Day 14 of the popular uprising in Egypt, and there’s no sign that the protesters in Tahrir Square are going anywhere on land bought with the blood of comrades whom the throngs here now call martyrs.

MAN: They died for us to live.

MARGARET WARNER: After roller-coaster days of peaceful protests and mayhem, a sense of promise has returned to this broad cross-section of Egyptian society assembled in central Cairo.

MAN: Please, Mubarak, if you love Egypt, you must go now.

MARGARET WARNER: But there has been no wavering in one demand: The 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak must end now.

MAN: We want this man to go, because we don’t trust him. We want a peaceful transition of power. And we can do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, less than a mile from Tahrir, just across the Nile in the middle-class neighborhood of Zamalek, normal life has begun to return: traffic snarled, horns blaring.

From the butcher’s block, to the fishmonger, to a local cafe, many express sympathy and support for the protests and the ground gained. But they say, now that Mubarak has pledged not to run again and to open up Egypt’s political system, it’s time to get back to work.

Concert violinist Ahmed Abdullalim:

AHMED ABDULLALIM, musician (through translator): The most important thing about this is that life go on peacefully. Ninety percent of the goals are achieved.

MARGARET WARNER: That sentiment, that the protesters have largely gotten what they wanted and that Mubarak should be treated with respect, was repeated by many, like high school teacher Abdul Fadim Mohamed.

ABDUL FADIM MOHAMED, teacher (through translator): They’re asking for more. They were given an inch. Now they try to take a mile. President Mubarak is the biggest Arab leader. We should all pay him a debt, respect and love.

MARGARET WARNER: But this big Arab leader let the institutions of civic life and democratic principles rot in three decades of repressive rule, says corporate lawyer Mohammed Belel. He joined in the protests.

MOHAMMED BELEL, attorney: We want justice. That’s the idea. We want justice. We want elections. We want, like, a constitution. We don’t want another pharaoh.

MARGARET WARNER: The list of grievances here is long, not just the political repression, but a liberalized economy that is generating wealth for the elite, while leaving many Egyptians out, and the feeling among Egypt’s Facebook-wired young Arabs that in a fast-changing world they’re falling behind.

WAEL NAWARA, Tomorrow Party: Egyptian people by nature are patient to a fault. They are really, you know, peaceful people. We say, OK, you know, like, let it go, and it will be solved. It will solve itself. Just, things will work out. However, I think the regime pushed them too much. I think he — the regime sort of misread this peaceful nature into — you know, it started looking down at the people.

MARGARET WARNER: That patience was already wearing thin when the January uprising in Tunisia, unseating an entrenched ruler, lit a spark across Egypt, says Wael Nawara, secretary-general of the opposition Tomorrow Party.

WAEL NAWARA: Tunisia provided Egypt with two things. First, it gives them a manual of how to, you know, depose of a — of a repressive regime and — and build a new one. But it also — it makes them jealous. Egyptians said, it’s like being beaten in football. They said, oh, my God. We got beaten by Tunisia.

MARGARET WARNER: Another major factor: the Mubarak’s regime own insularity from their youthful constituents.

Analyst Dina Shehata of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says the ruling elite never saw this social media-driven uprising coming.

DINA SHEHATA, AL-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies: We have a president who is a little bit out of touch and many people who are quite corrupt around him. And there was really a schism between the government and the people. There was no channels of communication or participation. Political parties were, you know, very weak and very tightly controlled.

MARGARET WARNER: In popular revolts elsewhere, the military has stepped in to crush opposition but not here in Egypt. Army tanks did move in to impose some order, but also protected the crowds.

MOHAMED KADRY SAID, retired Egyptian general: The people look to the army, not only now, even before, with trust and with admiration also, and because the army never lay this face of authority on them.

MARGARET WARNER: But retired General Mohamed Kadry Said, now a widely regarded military analyst, says the protesters can’t count on the military to push Mubarak out.

MOHAMED KADRY SAID: It never happened before. And it — it will not happen now. I cannot imagine that they knock the door and say to him, please leave. This was not because they are afraid to do that, but they are afraid that, if they did this — did this once, it will be repeated again in the future, and it will be a bad habit.

MARGARET WARNER: That leaves a messy political process to find a solution. New Vice President Omar Suleiman is meeting with some opposition parties, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

But the mistrustful youth-driven movement who first inspired the protests have refused to join any reform process that the regime is insisting it will run.

Shehata says the government believes it can wait them out.

DINA SHEHATA: The strategy now is kind of to leave the protesters in peace in Tahrir and for life around them to resume as normal, kind of to isolate them and ignore them in a way. And to ensure that there is no confrontation, so that — that the movement fizzles out on its own.

MARGARET WARNER: The uncharted waters have drawn in some unusual actors include Nobel Prize winner for chemistry Ahmed Zewail, who arrived here from Caltech to try to work a little political alchemy. He’s mediating between the government and the key Tahrir Square leaders.

At a mobbed press conference Sunday, Zewail acknowledged the lack of trust among all the players, but he warned there wasn’t a moment to waste in finding a compromise.

Activist Gameela Ismail, co-founder of Women for Change, came to hear Zewail, but said the Tahrir Square die-hards have to keep up the pressure.

GAMEELA ISMAIL, Women for Change: And this is what I always tell the — the people in the square when I’m there. I’m saying, listen guys, we are like in the last part of the long, dark tunnel, the very last part. It’s either we keep on our strength and courage and pass this remaining part of the tunnel — of the tunnel, or we’re going to be stuck here for at least 10 years.

MARGARET WARNER: So, could this spin out of control?

GAMEELA ISMAIL: It is out of control. It’s been — it’s been out of control for the last at least 10 days. It’s been out of control. The masses, the people want Mubarak off the scene. This regime, having a military core, is never going to allow this to happen, the fall of the president by the pressures of the people.

MARGARET WARNER: A recipe for a standoff between two seemingly implacable foes over the future for Egyptians who have learned these past two weeks never to say never.